Starring Ellen Barkin, Richard Masur, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Rated 18A. Starts Friday, May 13, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

American Gothic doesn't even begin to describe Todd Solondz's Rorschach reconstruction of his spiritually divided homeland. Like David Lynch and Barry Gifford, he makes the world seem "so wild at heart and crazy on top" that we would all happily board the next flight out of the solar system if only such an option were open to us. But, although structured like a jet-black fairy tale, Palindromes never really leaves the world of quotidian reality. There are no ghosts or goblins here, just blind chance and genetic inevitability.

Among its many other claims to originality, this movie must probably be considered the most bizarrely cast of all time. Aviva, the palindromically named lead character, is portrayed by eight different performers-one of them male and two of them black-whose ages range from about nine to 45, even though all of them are supposedly in the 12- to 13-year bracket.

Our pubescent Candida is into giving birth but not into having sex, a conundrum that eventually causes her to run away from her secular Jewish home to find refuge in a Christian fundamentalist "safe house" for all sorts of youthful outcasts.

During the course of her peregrinations, she manages to innocently step on every one of America's most painful corns, from abortion to child abuse, with side forays into right-wing patriotism, gun fetishism, and religious terrorism. In the process, the film accomplishes what Team America: World Police supposedly did but actually didn't: make both of Uncle Sam's warring camps look so repulsive that one isn't even half-tempted to join either of them.

This perhaps explains the one aspect of the film that is even more extraordinary than its eight-bodied protagonist: the power of its on-screen rhetoric.

Palindromes makes its arguments with an authority worthy of the greatest Roman orators. Just as they can momentarily persuade us of their point of view about things we've never heard of and wouldn't give a shit about even if we had, so Solondz makes us accept his definition of reality for 100 tense minutes of bleak brilliance.

If they watch movies in the afterlife, this one must be a favourite of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, and not just because it's as downbeat as they are, either. They would also dig it because it happens to be a masterpiece.